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Thomas Jefferson and John Adams discuss Goethe's Schriften


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To John Adams.

Monticello, January 24, 1814.


Dear SirI have great need of the indulgence so kindly extended to me in yourfavor of December 25, of permitting me to answer your friendly lettersat my leisure. My frequent and long absences from home are a firstcause of tardiness in my correspondence, and a second the accumulationof business during my absence, some of which imperiously commands firstattentions. I am now in arrear to you for your letters of November 12,14, 16, December 3, 19, 25.


* * * * * * * * *


You ask me if I have ever seen the work of J.W. Goethe's Schriften ? Never ; nor did the question ever occur to me before, where get we theten commandments ? The book indeed gives them to us verbatim, butwhere did it get them? For itself tells us they were written by thefinger of God on tables of stone, which were destroyed by Moses ; itspecifies those on the second set of tables in different form andsubstance, but still without saying how the others were recovered. Butthe whole history of these books is so defective and doubtful, that itseems vain to attempt minute inquiry into it; and such tricks havebeen played with their text, and with the texts of other books relatingto them, that we have a right from that cause to entertain much doubtwhat parts of them are genuine.



In the New Testament there is internalevidence that parts of it have proceeded from an extraordinary man ; and that other parts are of the fabric of very inferior minds. It isas easy to separate those parts, as to pick out diamonds fromdunghills. The matter of the first was such as would be preserved inthe memory of the hearers, and handed on by tradition for a long time; the latter such stuff as might be gathered up, for imbedding it,anywhere, and at any time.



I have nothing of Vives, or Budæus, andlittle of Erasmus. If the familiar histories of the Saints, the wantof which they regret, would have given us the histories of those trickswhich these writers acknowledge to have been practiced, and of the liesthey agree have been invented for the sake of religion, I join them intheir regrets. These would be the only parts of their histories worthreading.



It is not only the sacred volumes they have thusinterpolated, gutted, and falsified, but the works of others relatingto them, and even the laws of the land. We have a curious instance ofone of these pious frauds in the laws of Alfred. He composed, youknow, from the laws of the Heptarchy, a digest for the government ofthe United Kingdom, and in his preface to that work he tells usexpressly the sources from which he drew it, to wit, the laws of Ina,of Offa and Aethelbert (not naming the Pentateuch). But his piousinterpolator, very awkwardly, premises to his work four chapters of Exodus (from the 20th to the 23d) as a part of the laws of the land; so that Alfred's prefaceis made to stand in the body of the work.



Our judges, too, have lent aready hand to further these frauds, and have been willing to lay theyoke of their own opinions on the necks of others ; to extend thecoercions of municipal law to the dogmas of their religion, bydeclaring that these make a part of the law of the land. In theYear-Book 34, H. 6, p. 38, in Quare impedit, where the question was howfar the common law takes notice of the ecclesiastical law, Prisot,Chief Justice, in the course of his argument, says, "A tiels leis queils de seint eglise ont, en ancien scripture, covient a nous adonner credence ; car ces common luy sur quels touts manners leis sontfondes; et auxy, sin, nous sumus obliges de canustre lour esy de sainteglise," &c.


Finch begins the business of falsification bymistranslating and misstating the words of Prisot thus : "to such lawsof the church as have warrant in Holy Scripture our law givethcredence." Citing the above case and the words of Prisot in themargin, in Finch's law, B. 1, c. 3, here then we find ancien scripture,ancient writing, translated "holy scripture." This, Wingate, in 1658,erects into a maxim of law in the very words of Finch, but citingPrisot and not Finch. And Sheppard, breast. Religion, in 1675 laying itdown in the same words of Finch, quotes the Year-Book, Finch andWingate.



Then comes Sir Matthew Hale, in the case of the King v.Taylor, 1 Ventr. 293, 3 Keb. 607, and declares that "Christianity ispart and parcel of the laws of England." Citing nobody, and restingit, with his judgment against the witches, on his own authority, whichindeed was sound and good in all cases into which no superstition orbigotry could enter. Thus strengthened, the court in 1728, in the Kingv. Woolston, would not suffer it to be questioned whether towrite against Christianity was punishable at common law, saying it hadbeen so settled by Hale in Taylor's case, 2 Stra. 834. Wood,therefore, 409, without scruple, lays down as a principle, that allblaspheming and profaneness are offences at the common law, and citesStrange.



Blackstone, in 1763, repeats, in the words of Sir MatthewHale, that "Christianity is part of the laws of England," citingVentris and Strange, ubi supra. And Lord Mansfield, in the case of the Chamberlain of London v.Evans, in 1767, qualifying somewhat the position, says that "theessential principles of revealed religion are part of the common law."


Thus we find this string of authorities all hanging by one another on asingle hook, a mistranslation by Finch of the words of Prisot, or onnothing. For all quote Prisot, or one another, or nobody. Thus Finchmisquotes Prisot; Wingate also, but using Finch's words; Sheppardquotes Prisot, Finch and Wingate; Hale cites nobody ; the court inWoolston's case cite Hale ; Wood cites Woolston's case ; Blackstonethat and Hale, and Lord Mansfield volunteers his own ipse dixit. And who now can question but that the whole Bible and Testament are apart of the common law? And that Connecticut, in her blue laws,laying it down as a principle that the laws of God should be the lawsof their land, except where their own contradicted them, did anythingmore than express, with a salvo, what the English judges had lesscautiously declared without any restriction ? And what, I dare say,our cunning Chief Justice would swear to, and find as many sophisms totwist it out of the general terms of our declarations of rights, andeven the stricter text of the Virginia "act for the freedom ofreligion," as he did to twist Burr's neck out of the halter oftreason. May we not say then with Him who was all candor andbenevolence, "woe unto you, ye lawyers, for ye lade men with burdensgrievous to bear."


I think with you, that Priestley, in his comparison of the doctrines ofphilosophy and revelation, did not do justice to the undertaking. Buthe felt himself pressed by the hand of death. Enfield has given us amore distinct account of the ethics of the ancient philosophers ; butthe great work of which Enfield's is an abridgment, Brucker's History of Philosophy,is the treasure which I would wish to possess, as a book of referenceor of special research only, for who could read six volumes quarto, ofone thousand pages each, closely printed, of modern Latin ? Youraccount of D'Argens' Æileus makes me wish for him also. Æileusfurnishes a fruitful text for a sensible and learned commentator. TheAbbé Batteaux, which I have, is a meagre thing.


You surprise me with the account you give of the strength of familydistinction still existing in your State. With us it is so totallyextinguished, that not a spark of it is to be found but lurking in thehearts of some of our old tories ; but all bigotries hang to oneanother, and this in the Eastern States hangs, as I suspect, to that ofthe priesthood. Here youth, beauty, mind and manners, are more valuedthan a pedigree.


I do not remember the conversation between us which you mention inyours of November 15th, on your proposition to vest in Congress the exclusive power of establishing banks. My opposition to it must have been grounded, not on taking the powerfrom the States, but on leaving any vestige of it in existence, even inthe hands of Congress ; because it would only have been a change ofthe organ of abuse.



I have ever been the enemy of banks,not of those discounting for cash, but of those foisting their ownpaper into circulation, and thus banishing our cash. My zeal againstthose institutions was so warm and open at the establishment of theBank of the United States, that I was derided as a maniac by the tribeof bank-mongers, who were seeking to filch from the public theirswindling and barren gains. But the errors of that day cannot berecalled. The evils they have engendered are now upon us, and thequestion is how we are to get out of them ? Shall we build an altar tothe old paper money of the Revolution, which ruined individuals butsaved the republic, and burn on that all the bank charters, present and future, and their notes with them? For these are to ruin both republic and individuals.



This cannot bedone. The mania is too strong. It has seized, by its delusions andcorruptions, all the members of our governments, general, special andindividual. Our circulating paper of the last year was estimated attwo hundred millions of dollars. The new banks now petitioned for, tothe several legislatures, are for about sixty millions additionalcapital, and of course one hundred and eighty millions of additionalcirculation, nearly doubling that of the last year, and raising thewhole mass to near four hundred millions, or forty for one, of thewholesome amount of circulation for a population of eight millionscircumstanced as we are, and you remember how rapidly our money wentdown after our forty for one establishment in the Revolution. I doubtif the present trash can hold as long.



I think the three hundred andeighty millions must blow all up in the course of the present year, orcertainly it will be consummated by the re-duplication to take place ofcourse at the legislative meetings of the next winter. Should notprudent men who possess stock in any moneyed institution, either drawand hoard the cash now while they can, or exchange it for canal stock,or such other as being bottomed on immovable property, will remainunhurt by the crush ? I have been endeavoring to persuade a friend inour legislature to try and save this State from the general ruin bytimely interference.



I propose to him, First, to prohibit instantly,all foreign paper. Secondly, to give our banks six months to call inall their five-dollar bills (the lowest we allow); another six monthsto call in their ten-dollar notes, and six months more to call in allbelow fifty dollars. This would produce so gradual a diminution ofmedium, as not to shock contracts already made--would leave finally,bills of such size as would be called for only in transactions betweenmerchant and merchant, and ensure a metallic circulation for those ofthe mass of citizens. But it will not be done. You might as well,with the sailors, whistle to the wind, as suggest precautions againsthaving too much money. We must bend then before the gale, and try tohold fast ourselves by some plank of the wreck. God send us all a safedeliverance, and to yourself every other species and degree ofhappiness.


P.S. I return your letter of November 15th,as it requests, and supposing that the late publication of the life ofour good and really great Rittenhouse may not have reached you, I senda copy for your acceptance. Even its episodes and digressions may addto the amusement it will furnish you. But if the history of the worldwere written on the same scale, the whole world would not hold it. Rittenhouse, as an astronomer, would stand on a line with any of histime, and as a mechanician, he certainly has not been equalled. Inthis view he was truly great, but, placed alongside of Newton, everyhuman character must appear diminutive, and none would have shrunk morefeelingly from the painful parallel than the modest and amiableRittenhouse, whose genius and merit are not the less for thisexaggerated comparison of his over-zealous biographer.



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